Dressing for success: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:1–14:

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

“The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Before I began blogging full time, I managed 24/7 call centers, which in most instances are casual dress work environments.  While some dress standards did exist, they mainly consisted of being clean and not creating distractions. In the beginning of my career in management, I tended to dress as my staff did — casually — in part because of some of the maintenance and repair tasks necessary in my job at the time. The nature of our industry meant that customers (or company execs) rarely visited, and almost never without advance notice — and we’d have plenty of notice to get dressed up on those rare occasions.

That changed for me when I unexpectedly got called into a customer visit by my boss. At the last moment, the customer had told his sales rep that he wanted to go over concerns about the call center, and I got a call to come to the regional corporate headquarters immediately to discuss it. At the time, I was wearing an old pair of jeans, a blousy short-sleeved sports shirt, and old sneakers. When I walked into the room, I thought my boss’ eyes were going to pop out of his skull, but he never said a word to me about it. He didn’t have to say anything — I was embarrassed enough for the both of us. After that, I went wardrobe shopping and dressed more appropriately for my position, even keeping an “emergency tie” in my office.

That happened over twenty years ago, but I have never forgotten it, and today’s Gospel reminds me of the lesson I learned from it.

The parable Jesus tells has more context than just the manner of dress by one condemned man. It touches on our reading today from the Old Testament, but also foreshadows Revelation’s magnificent depiction of our place in eternity. In Isaiah 25, the prophet describes eternal life with the Lord as a feast with “juicy rich food and pure choice wines,” a feast in which the chosen will see the Lord and suffer death no more. He will “remove his reproach” from men and women, and all will rejoice in His name.

However, Jesus adds a few key details to His parable that changes the lesson significantly. The most subtle is identifying it as a wedding feast, specifically for a king’s son. This changes the nature of both the feast and of the expectation of the invitees, as Jesus makes clear later in the parable. However, it also provides a hint of what John relates in Revelation 19:6-9, in which the angel says to John, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” This feast celebrates our new life within the Trinity collectively as the bride of Christ. We are not just guests at this feast; we are the guests of honor, those who will live within the Lord forever, and who must come to this feast prepared for eternal life.

Next, Jesus issues a specific challenge to his audience. In Isaiah, the prophecy was that “all peoples” would join the Lord in eternal life, which surely would have included the Israelites … or at least so they assume. Pointedly, the first set of invited guests never bother to show up in Jesus’ parable, even after the king sends servants to remind them that the feast is ready. Rather than respond to the messengers, the guests either decide to work on their own business or assault the messengers.

There is nothing subtle about this part of the parable, especially since the audience for this teaching was the chief priests and elders — the Israelite leadership of the time. Jesus tells them in effect that they will have no part in eternal life, having missed the Lord’s call and abused His prophets. Eventually, as Jesus knows, they will have the Son murdered too. Rather than offer salvation through the original “guest list,” the Lord will send His servants out to the entire world for those who wish to love Him, a reference to the Church after the resurrection, and the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

But even then, not everyone will get on board, Jesus warns in the third and most intriguing part of his parable. Many who hear the invitation will come, regardless of whether they sinned or not. However, most of them prepare for the wedding feast as they should, except for one man who thinks the invitation is “come as you are.” The king condemns that man to darkness, which seems a little harsh in the parable’s literal sense for mere sartorial slackness.

Of course, the point here is not to dress for success in the manner which we normally consider, nor even to dress nicely for Mass, which connects us through space and time with that wedding feast of the Lamb. (Dressing nicely for Mass is still a good idea even apart from today’s Gospel.) How we dress ourselves in our day-to-day life says something about us in this world, but the test in this lesson is whether we clothe ourselves in Christ in preparation for that eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. We are not guaranteed a place at the table simply for showing up; we must prepare ourselves for an eternal life of holiness by “dressing” ourselves in the Word. When the invitation comes, we may not have time to rethink our wardrobe, so to speak.

And how do we prepare ourselves? We read scripture and the Gospels, for one thing, and we listen to the prophets. Most importantly, we repent of our sins whether we consider ourselves bad or good, and ask for forgiveness. We need to live as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, in which he tells the “the secret of being well fed and going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” We live in the Lord and allow Him to live in us, Paul instructs, and when we do, we “can do all things in him who strengthens me.” When we do that, we need not fear losing our place at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

To bring it back to my earlier experience: when the boss calls, you’d better be “dressed” for the occasion.

The front-page image is “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan van Eyck, part of the Ghent altarpiece in the Cathedral of Saint Bavo, circa 1432.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.